WASHINGTON -- Gerald R. Ford was a professional politician who tempered the practice of his trade's deceits with innate decency. That was demonstrated to me on April 1, 1971, in an incident unique in my half-century as a Washington reporter.
I had been tipped that House Republican Leader Ford was performing a confidential mission at President Richard Nixon's request: to ask Republican members of Congress how they would react to presidential clemency or even a pardon for Lt. William Calley, sentenced a day earlier for the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. I called Ford to ask whether Nixon had met with him to pursue that endeavor. Ford replied that was incorrect. I had covered Ford for 14 years, and I accepted his word.
Thirty minutes later, Ford called me back. "Bob, you asked me the wrong question," he said. He had not met with Nixon, but the president had phoned him from San Clemente to make the improper request. No news source ever bailed me out the way Ford did that day. But why did he not give me a straight answer in the first place?
The incident foretold ambivalence in Ford's two-year presidency. Declaring after succeeding Nixon that "our long national nightmare is over," Ford soothed his troubled fellow citizens. The accidental president seemed on the brink of great achievements. In fact, his tenure was plagued by blunders and occasional pettiness.
Jerry Ford never would have been considered for the White House had it not been for successive forced resignations of a vice president and a president. He was not in the front line of Republican notables, and Nixon's choice of him surprised even Ford's closest House associates.
Calculating that Watergate never would bring him down, Nixon did not think he was picking a successor when he replaced the disgraced Spiro T. Agnew as vice president. Consequently, he passed over towering figures from opposite wings of the Republican Party, Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan. Nixon would have preferred John Connally, but his old congressional sidekick, Melvin Laird, convinced him that the Democratic turncoat could not be confirmed by Congress. Nixon picked Ford as somebody he could trust.
Ford, who never aspired to be president, was a man of the House concerned about arrogation of power by the executive branch at the expense of the legislative. He was the only president in my experience who entered the Oval Office wanting to shrink rather than expand powers of the office. In a conversation with him as vice president, Ford recommended to me "The Twilight of the Presidency" by George Reedy -- an indictment of monarchial pretensions. Ford told me all recent presidents, including his hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, were guilty.
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